William Nicholson wrote the screenplay for Les Misérables, which is currently playing in Abu Dhabi. If you're interested in Nicholson's work, I would suggest seeing the movie instead of reading Motherland, his newest novel. After all, Nicholson can't be blamed for the film's broadly drawn characters and 19th-century sentimentality, which were all that remained of Victor Hugo's novel after it was ground up into the long-running Broadway musical; nor can Nicholson be blamed for the full-throated close-ups that are director Tom Hooper's stock-in-trade. No, Les Misérables, which will doubtless clean up come awards season, is only partially Nicholson's baby.
Motherland, however, is fully his responsibility and thus he is fully to blame for its failures. One might expect more from a writer whose books sell briskly and are generally well-reviewed (although the word "cinematic" crops up with alarming regularity). But Motherland combines a by-the-numbers plot with leaden characterisation and overblown meditations about Important Subjects, almost as if Nicholson took the lyrics from Les Miz as his inspiration.
The plot of Motherland, loosely, is this: five people, three men and two women, meet just prior to the disastrous battle of Dieppe, when they are all billeted at Edenfield, an English estate. All three men fall in love with the beautiful Kitty, who, of course, falls in love with the most troubled (and handsome) of the soldiers, Ed Avenell. Kitty's choice leaves Kitty's friend Louisa to scoop up passive, noble-born George Holland, heir to Edenfield; and puts Larry Cornford, scion of a family-owned banana-importing company that eventually runs afoul of United Fruit, on the hunt for a woman who might replace Kitty in his affections.
The novel traces the fates of these five people from the bloodbath at Dieppe, when thousands of Allied troops, mostly Canadian, were slaughtered by the Germans, due primarily to the ineptitude of Lord "Dickie" Mountbatten (at least in Nicholson's account), through the aftermath of the war, England's withdrawal from India, and then England's attempts to rebuild itself in the wake of both war and empire. The tale is told as a sort of a flashback, a way of explaining to a young woman named Alice Dickinson how she came to be the bastard child of a father apparently unloved by his own mother. Alice's father Guy, who appears only briefly, tells her "you come from a long line of mistakes," which Alice, understandably, does not find terribly comforting. Alice goes in search of her paternal grandmother, Pamela Avenell, and finds her in Normandy: a beautiful 70-year old woman who lives at La Grande Heuze, an exquisite ancestral manor. Pamela welcomes Alice with outstretched arms and then regales her with the tale of her own mother - the beautiful Kitty, whose love for Ed seems transcendent.
The novel does seem "cinematic": there are picturesque settings, handsome people in dashing uniforms, sweeping historical scope, ill-fated lovers. As a period piece, however, an episode of Downton Abbey packs more of an emotional punch. When we meet Motherland's central threesome - Ed, Kitty and Larry - Ed broods, Kitty wonders what to do with her life and Larry ponders how to be both an artist and a good Catholic. And that's more or less what each character does for the rest of the novel. The characters (who never really become "people") move around in time and space - German POW camps, London's postwar bohemia, India, Normandy, Paris, New Orleans - but they themselves remain curiously static. It is as if Nicholson has somehow confused physical movement with emotional growth: each character has one flaw, which we learn about in the novel's early pages, and then despite the world changing around them, these flaws never shift and the complications they cause never deepen.
Ed, for example, is awarded the Victoria Cross for his heroic actions at Dieppe, but spends the entire novel sure that he doesn't deserve his medal. We are meant, I think, to hear in his protestations the sound of a soul in pain, but his speeches about war and death never rise (or sink) to the passionate levels one would expect from a tormented soul. He tells Larry that on the beach at Dieppe he "got angry at all the world, this stupid wicked world that hurts people for no reason" and that "the guns didn't get me … but I died anyway. I don't belong in the world of the living any more." Ed's prosaic language may reflect the fact that he is an ordinary man caught in extraordinary circumstances, but nowhere does the novel rise above such prosy prose and as a result, neither the characters nor their world open up to us.
One of the most jarring segments of the novel occurs when Larry, recovering from an unhappy love affair, is suddenly chosen to join Mountbatten's staff in India. Larry watches, wide-eyed, as the aristocrat gets sworn in as viceroy and then attempts to mediate among the competing agendas of Nehru, Gandhi and Muhammed Jinnah, who becomes the first leader of Pakistan. India, in Larry's eyes, is "bursting with life and noise and colour … jarring juxtapositions of scarlets and ambers and deep greens". He sees, in short, what every tourist sees on his first visit to India and later, when he sees violence and poverty in the streets, he voices the question that people almost always ask: "How can I even consider my own troubles worth one second's attention in the face of such suffering?" It's a good question, of course, but it's not a question that offers the reader any new insight about this moment in history, just as Larry's descriptions of Delhi fail to convince us that he sees "with a painter's eye".
The entire India episode seems designed to give Nicholson an opportunity to bash the Raj and to point out the disastrously far-reaching consequences of Partition. Larry's Indian adventure also offers an EM Forster moment, when Larry agrees to tour the deserted city of Fatehpur Sikri with Geraldine, the sister of a friend also in Mountbatten's staff. It will come as no surprise to find out that Larry and Geraldine fall in love or to discover that Geraldine is yet another of the beautiful-but-flawed characters who populate the novel. Like the others, Geraldine has only one flaw, but it's a doozy - and as the case with the other characters, Geraldine's flaw remains constant. She never changes; it remains only for Larry to decide if he is really in love with her or if his feelings were produced as a response to the romance of India.
Such dramatic interest in the novel occurs only as Larry falls in and out of love, tries life as an artist, tries life as a businessman and all the while continues to carry his torch for Kitty. Kitty, meanwhile, continues to wonder what she should do with her life and with her unhappy husband, who becomes an alcoholic in an effort to dull his misery - although he remains handsome and loving to the bitter end. These relationships, unsurprisingly, get neatly and tidily wrapped up in the novel's last few pages, and Alice Dickinson learns that she should become "a woman who knows she deserves to be loved", another in a long line of clichéd phrases that the novel presents to us as brilliant insight.
The early 20th-century novelist and editor William Dean Howells once said that what Americans want in theatre is a tragedy with a happy ending, a comment that perfectly describes Motherland. And in fact, if the novel were a straightforward melodrama, it would be less of a failure. Unfortunately, however, grafted to the creaky melodramatic machinery of the plot are long conversations about heroism, faith, religion, and love, all of which suggest that the novel aspires to be much more than it is. I can't even tell you that the novel is an interesting failure. I can only urge you, again, to go see Les Misérables, which is at least melodrama you can hum to.
Deborah Lindsay Williams is a professor of literature at NYU Abu Dhabi.